Chile Celebrates First Woman President

Michelle Bachelet was once held as a political prisoner under former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet. Saturday, the single mother of three became the nation's first woman president in a warm and emotional ceremony.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In Chile today, Michelle Bachelet, a single mother of three, was inaugurated as the country's first woman president.

NPR's Julie McCarthy was at the festivities in Valparaiso and sent this report.

(Soundbite of Chile's national anthem)

JULIE MCCARTHY reporting:

With Chile's national anthem resounding through the Congressional Hall of Honor, for many the lyrics mirrored the moment. The happy copy of Eden, goes the song about this country at the bottom of the world. Chile is the most stable and prosperous of its neighbors in South America. The ceremony today was careful to accord a place of honor, the first row to the presidents of Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Also present was Bolivia's Evo Morales, the continent's first indigenous president, who prompted spontaneous applause when he entered the hall.

Michelle Batchelet's three children and her mother, who was once jailed with her daughter by Augusto Pinochet, looked on from the gallery. The 54-year-old pediatrician took the solemn oath to fulfill the office of presidency with the simple words, I promise.

President MICHELLE BACHELET (Chile): Si, promiso.

(Sound bite of applause and a cheering crowd)

MCCARTHY: The crowd erupted anew when the red, white and blue sash of presidential power was placed around her shoulders. Women wore sashes and waited outside for a glimpse of their new leader. Inside, the crowd breached protocol to scream, Michelle, we love you! She beamed and waved back. Chile's proud moment included the swearing of her new cabinet ministers. Half of them wore skirts. Bachelet made good on her promise to have a cabinet of 50 percent women.

Despite historic changes and gender at the top, male chivalry was not dead. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez kissed the hand of the new president. There was an outpouring, too, for outgoing President Ricardo Lagos. Bachelet threw her arms around the neck of her popular predecessor for a long, emotional brace. The former president exited the proceedings early with his ministers, leaving behind rows of empty seats, an act that implies the importance of transferring power.

(Soundbite of military band)

MCCARTHY: The gesture seemed a fitting symbol for Chile, whose democracy today came full circle. A former political prisoner is now president. And the former dictator who detained her is disgraced under house arrest.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Santiago, Chile.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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